Self Build on a Serviced Plot: Expert Q & A with Architect Matt Wood

Self Build on a Serviced Plot: Expert Q & A with Architect Matt Wood

A new policy in Norfolk requires all housing developments of 40 dwellings or more to dedicate at least 5% of those 40 as serviced plots for self-build or custom-build. But what does this actually mean? And what are the attractions of a self-build plot on a housing estate? Listen to the Q&A below, or read the transcript at bottom of this page.

This content was created as a listening piece. An edited transcript has been included below!

Useful Links

Greater Norwich Local Plan –

Long Four Acres –

Graven Hill –

Richard Bacon Self Build Report –

Matt Wood’s Summary of Richard Bacon’s Report

Q & A with Matt Wood, Head of Housing at Hudson Architects

Could you start by introducing yourself?

My name is Matt wood. I’m the head of housing at Hudson Architects and I’ve been interested in housing for 15 to 20 years.

Before that I was mostly doing retail and a lot of urban high rise housing. These days I do a lot of suburban housing and housing estates. We work for a mixture of private developers and house builders and people who are building their own homes – individual self builders.

Our discussion started with a radical new policy for Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk and the requirement that with any new developments of 40 dwellings, at least 5% of those 40 must be serviced plots for self or customer builders. There was a mixed reaction within the team on whether that was something that people were interested in. Our conversation today is about understanding…what does that actually look like?

In the past, self-build in this country has been delivered largely just as one-off homes on leftover bits of land. Where, typically, you have a field or the backend of a garden and you sort everything out from scratch….You have to put in an access from the highway, you have to lay on water and electricity and gas from the utilities companies, all of which are separate agreements and separate prices.

You then also have to go and get planning permission… which is never a straightforward process. So, traditionally self-build has really been an activity for a genuine enthusiast. People with a lot of time and some understanding of the system. Certainly plenty of money! Someone that is able to take a risk with some of that money in terms of going into something that’s inherently uncertain and quite difficult.

So that’s what self build in this country has previously been. But the idea of a serviced plot is that the developer would already have obtained planning permission for those plots – probably in the form of outline permission that establishes the use of that land as being suitable to have a house on it.

Planning is taken care of, at least in outline terms. And while they’re putting in all of their utilities for all of the other houses on the site, the developer would build you the roads that gave access to your plots; would bring gas, water, electric and data to the edge of your plot, with simple connections for you to plug into. It’s a very different way of delivering land to self-builders.

The government is really hoping that it’ll lead to a step change in the rate of provision and uptake for self-build. That’s why this new policy is very exciting. A real game changer in terms of the volume of land that’s available.

The policy that we’re talking about in ‘The Greater Norwich Local Plan’ (GNLP) refers explicitly to self and custom build. Other policies in different bits of the world and different bits of the country don’t refer to custom build. They just talk about self-build. The basic difference is self-build is a classic, old fashioned way of doing things. You find a piece of land that will take one house and you…

…well the self-build is a bit misleading because hardly anybody actually physically builds their house. It should probably be called self-procure or self-commissioned because the vast majority of self-builders hire an architect to design their dream home and hire a building contractor to build it….So self build is a bit of a misnomer anyway!…

…But, self-build is that traditional one occupier, one house type of model. Custom-build is defined slightly differently in various places – but the key feature is that it’s typically a group of houses rather than a one-off house and crucially the builder is probably also the developer, i.e. the owner of the land. In the case that we’re talking about on a large housing estate, the house builder will be building lots of houses and their intention would be to individually build these custom-build houses. Rather than building them to plans that they already have drawn up or used elsewhere, they work with a future occupier to design the house to that occupier’s particular requirements. That’s the absolute essence of custom build.

By the strict definitions or the definitions that are in the self and custom build housing act, the plans mustn’t already exist. It’s not a question of choosing the tiles in the bathroom or the door fronts in the kitchen. It has to be more substantial than that. The developer has to work with the occupier to design and develop the house.

The first step in the chain is the planning permission, which typically would be just outlined. So. it would normally say… This is a plot of so-and-so many hundred square meters and it can take a house this size, say 150 square meters, and everything else about the house has to be planning approved at a later date – typically when the land has been sold and the purchaser is designing their house. You have to come back and get detailed planning permission to flesh out the bare bones of the outline permissions.

When you buy the house it also tends to come with what they call a plot passport, which is really a list of instructions on what you can and can’t do on the plot. Almost invariably there’ll be a limit on the size of the house that each plot is allowed to take. There’ll usually be a limit on the height of the house. Typically that will be the number of stories. Plus perhaps an overall height limit on the, let’s say, the highest ridge of the highest roof. It will typically also give you distances from boundaries at the side and front and rear of the house that you can’t build in – that’s to stop you getting too close to the neighbors or too close to the highway. It will tell you other things like how many parking spaces you’ve got to provide. It might go so far as to say it has to have a pitched roof, or it has to have a flat roof, or it has to be built of certain materials. But the simpler the plot passport the better has been the general thrust of things up until now.

Yes, absolutely. In parts of the world where this is more common, particularly in Holland – which is the absolute exemplar of how to do all different sorts of self and custom build – they refer to this as an architectural zoo. You get very, very different houses next to each other in a street in the same way that you see very different animals in their cages. Which some people find really exciting and attractive, other people find it quite weird and a bit sort of headachy.

How similar or different the houses look is something that you can control with that set of instructions that I’ve talked about with the plot passport. So, for instance, your plot passport might say all houses are to have pitched roofs with a minimum pitch of 40 degrees. And immediately that would give you something that would make the houses hang together. If you then specify they have to be built of one of these three following bricks and the windows must have vertical divisions only. The more you write down the more you could gel the whole thing together.

Another way that you can provide some consistency is to make sure that everybody has the same treatment to the front boundary. There’s an example locally near Mulbarton called Long Four Acres, which had quite a loose design code. It has this element of the architectural zoo. But, the treatment along the pavement, every plot has to have the same hedge. So, over time the hedge will grow in and the plots will look unified by how they’re treated along the front.

At the moment most self builders are looking for individuality to express themselves. So, I think in the first instance, developers might be inclined to write fewer rules rather than more. As the market develops I think people might want to have more of a sense of what the overall look and feel of the street is going to be.

At Hudson Architects we do a lot of self-build – but it’s the traditional self-build! It’s people who’ve managed to find a piece of land and have come to ask us to design a house.

That market is quite well-established, but it’s relatively small – it doesn’t produce many homes over the course of a year. What’s really exciting about this initiative is it has the facility to really boost the numbers.

There aren’t yet that many examples of what we might call a ‘housing estate’ version. There is only really one example that I’ve mentioned already at Long Four Acres. I believe it has 12 or 14 plots – all sold or built. So, that’s proved that there’s a market for it.

The emerging plan isn’t adopted until sometime next year – so I think it’s going to take a year or two for this to filter through. And the other thing about it is these big housing developments, you know, forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred dwellings, they take several years to come through the system.

So, my feeling is that we’re getting ready. It’s coming, so start thinking about it now. If you think it’s an option for you, get ready for when these plots really do start to come on to the market.

Yes. There’s a very good website by the National Custom and Self-Build Association (NACSBA) which is really worth looking at. It has loads of really good case studies on it. The biggest one in this country is over by Oxford, a development called Graven Hill. Most of which is self-build plots and they’ve built dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, by now of houses in a self-build method. So, that’s worth looking at online or even going to visit. Over this side of the country, much less, apart from this one at Long Four Acres. But it’s going to be happening more and more.

Abroad, on mainland Europe and most of the Northern hemisphere, self-build accounts for between 40 and 70% of all new homes that are built. Whereas in Britain, it’s only 10%. Most other countries have self-build like we can’t imagine. And the obvious one, partly because it’s so close, but also partly because it does it so well, is Holland. There are entire new towns that really set the precedent. The one that people often refer to is called Almere in, Amsterdam which is a new town entirely built of self-build plots. So, it’s out there! And that website, the NACSBA website is a really good place to start.

So, in the scenario where it’s a self-build, the implication there is that the self-builders and self-commissioners are buying pieces of land. That’s all they’re buying – well, they’re buying a piece of land plus the rules! They then have total control over what they do provided it’s within the rules.

They have to go and hire an architect or draw their own plans if they feel up to it and then go and find a builder. They’re doing everything for themselves. And a lot of self builders do some of the work (Some do all of it! But not that many). If you’re going the custom build route, then you’re working with a developer who will usually also be the builder. The house builders tend to do that model. They develop their insights and build their own houses and there the range is less well-defined. But as I say, it’s got to be more than choosing tiles or ‘do you want this wall or not’?

I would imagine in the medium term it would be working with that developer’s chosen architect to develop your house design. So, in an ideal world, you get all the freedom of the self-build route in terms of the design, but somebody else is taking care of the pricing of the projects and actually delivering it and ensuring the quality is up to scratch and all the rest of that. So, custom build is, I think, where the government thinks we ought to end up.

Well, they’re required to provide affordable housing. That’s how we provide affordable housing in this country – there’s quotas on large developments. So, they’re not unused to the idea of having to do certain things with certain bits of land. But, I think they will probably be, and I’ve spoken to a few about it over the years, I think they will generally be quite resistant to the idea.

If you’re a house builder you really have two profit margins. You make some profit on securing planning permission – of turning a field into a development site increasing its value by 10 to 20 times. Any builder or developer will also make another profit margin on piling up materials to make a house. So, the price that they can sell the house for is worth more than the cost of the materials and labour that took to build it.

The problem with this is that they’re losing one of those profit margins, because they’re just selling a piece of land. They’re not selling a finished house.

On the plus side, with self-build you typically buy the land at a very early stage. For every one of these plots they’ll be getting the money upfront. So, there should be some cash flow advantages to developers to be had.

In summary, I think there’s probably been some resistance if I’m honest – but it’s policy now!

A lot of the big risk items are things like access from the highway, being able to get utilities, connections at a decent price and on time. Planning is a massive risk item that can go badly wrong. The actual piling up of the bricks and timber to make a house is relatively straightforward. Things do go wrong, and you need to have a really trustworthy builder or an architect that’s keeping an eye on things for you, but the whole point about serviced plots is that they should be really taking a lot of the big risk items out of the process for an aspiring self builder.

Not all architects have got a lot of experience of working with owner-occupiers. A lot of smaller local architects do have that sort of experience. It’s a distinct skill to be able to work with people, to understand what the client means in terms of how you actually design, and to understand what’s in people’s heads. So, you need to choose somebody that’s got a track record of working with individuals.

You also need to choose somebody whose previous work you have an enjoyment of. If you want a neoclassical house there’s not much point hiring an architect who’s only got flat roof modernists boxes in their back catalog. Look at architects’ websites and see what sorts of houses they’ve designed in the past. That’s the starting point. Most small local architects have got experience of this and would be able to give you help with choosing a builder and going through building regs etc.

In this case the first step is neither of those! The first useful thing that all self builders should be doing locally is to get their names on the Custom Build Registers with each of their local planning authorities.

The government has been pushing to increase the popularity of self-build for about 10 years . Our local MP Richard bacon has been really instrumental in pushing this through. He leads an all party group on this in parliament and the first concrete step towards increase in self-build was placing a requirement on all local planning authorities to maintain a register of people who are interested in self building. That register is really important because the number of plots that a local authority has to approve is related to the demand in their local area.

The supply of plots has been a bit frustrating because there has not been a requirement for local authorities to actually provide the plots. They just have to know how many people want them. Very frustrating for the trailblazers going on to these registers!

The other thing is that you will be notified when plots are approved. You can also be on more than one register! So, you get a kind of heads up on what plots are coming through the system. When they’ve got self-build plots to sell they’re also going to be popping up in estate agents. We will see that start to happen in due course.

Once you’ve located a piece of land then you can sort of start thinking about an architect and whether or not you need a contractor.

Almost by definition these larger developments of 40 plus units have to be in a sustainable location. Typically, that means next to a town or a village that’s got a range of local services; schools, shops, pubs, health care, public transport etc. If I was a developer, I would want to make sure that the self-build plots had a nice, attractive, quiet corner of my site.

Before you had to take a plot wherever you could find it, and the chances are you’d end up out in the sticks somewhere, or in a completely different part of the county than you were expecting. If we go forward five or 10 years, any new development of that size, which is most of them these days, will have a few plots that are available for self builders. That’s an absolute game changer!

I don’t think there are any at the moment. This is going to take a year or two to come through the system. Partly why we’re having this conversation is to get people to start to think about it and consider it…. If it was a bit cheaper and a lot less risky than it used to be…would it change your view? You might not be living out in splendid isolation but you’ll be living in a highly sustainable location next to shops and probably transport and schools, you know, it’s, we’re thinking about and getting ready I think.

I would say we’re a bit off the pace. The west country, for some reason, has been much more active. Both in terms of serviced plot quotas on developers and also treating self-build as a form of affordable housing.

This has been all the more frustrating because our local MP Richard Bacon has been such a key figure in pushing this whole agenda through central government. He introduced a private members bill to get some of the early systems in place – notably the Custom Build Registers.

In fact, South Norfolk was one of what they call the ‘Vanguard Councils‘ on self-build. One of the first to set up its register but then things seemed to stagnate – which is the reason why this new policy is all the more exciting.

Richard Bacon is continuing to push forward on these things. He’s just released a major report commissioned by the government where he talks about all of the different forms of government support. (Read our summary of Richard Bacon’s report here.) There are tax policies that are being considered. They are very keen on the idea of making self-build mortgages much more widely available. Although we started early and then perhaps went off the boil, we’re certainly catching up with a vengeance now.

Well, I have to say having had this conversation, I’ve hopped over the fence. I started off thinking ‘Hmm, self-build on the, on the edge of a housing development. I’m not sure about that.’. You’ve convinced me.

Good! Well, get yourself on your local self-build register and watch this space!

Author / Hudson Architects

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